Muslims in Milwaukee: A Brief History*
The Muslim community in the Milwaukee area is a young, vibrant community. Although there are no official demographic studies available, it is estimated that there are about 15,000 Muslims residing in Southeastern Wisconsin. They are serving our community as engineers, physicians, nurses, teachers, attorneys, laborers, businessmen and businesswomen, scientists, cab drivers, truck drivers, and in many other fields.
A continuous Muslim presence in the Milwaukee area can be traced back to the 1950’s. It is known that Muslims arrived in Milwaukee prior to this time, but the number of such Muslims was very limited. In addition, those who did settle in the Milwaukee area prior to the 1950’s were often students or peddlers who remained here only temporarily.
Over the years, the various ethnic, cultural and racial groups that make up the Milwaukee Muslim community were able to come together to establish religious centers and facilities that were open to all individuals, regardless of their country of origin or background. And although the process of overcoming cultural barriers and adopting an American Muslim identity was sometimes challenging, the Muslim community in Milwaukee takes pride in the fact that it has been able to successfully incorporate its varied cultures, ethnicities and races into its institutions. Without any doubt, the most ethnically, culturally and racially diverse religious organizations in the Milwaukee area are Muslim organizations.
Muslims in the Milwaukee area trace their origins to more than 30 countries. In the Milwaukee area, the three largest groups are those that come from the Arab world (more than 20 countries), those from Southeast Asia (India, Pakistan and Kashmir), and African American Muslims.
Muslims from the Arab World:
Muslims who immigrated to the Milwaukee area from Arab lands may have been drawn here, at least in part, by the existence of an established Arab Christian community with whom they shared a common language and culture. The Arab Christian community (Syrian, Lebanese, and Palestinian) traces its origins in the Milwaukee area to the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. As with Muslims in later decades, the Arab Christian immigrants often started off as street merchants and peddlers. Milwaukee’s second Archbishop, the Most Reverend Sebastian Messmer, established an “Arab” Melkite church in 1911 and the dedication of St. George Melkite Church on the corner of 17th and State Street took place on December 23, 1917. By 1930, it was estimated that the Arab Christian community in Milwaukee was around 600 people.
By the early 1950’s, a more significant number of Arab Muslims arrived in Milwaukee, some as students, and others working as traveling salesmen and peddlers. Many resided in the area around State Street between 7th and 20th.
By the mid 1960’s to early 1970’s, the number of Muslims from Arab countries continued to increase. Many of the new immigrants were Palestinians who were displaced as result of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. Others came from Egypt, Algeria, Morocco and other Arab countries. In more recent years, Milwaukee has seen a substantial influx of refugees from Iraq.
Muslims From Pakistan, India and Kashmir:
The first Muslims from Pakistan, India and Kashmir arrived in the Milwaukee area in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. The early arrivals included physicians and students. Between 1966 and 1972, a significant number of Muslim physicians arrived in the Milwaukee area to complete their residency and other medical training. Many remained in the Milwaukee and played an instrumental role in the establishment of Muslim houses of worship in the Milwaukee area.
The first Muslim holiday prayer that is known to have taken place in Milwaukee was organized in1968 in the home of a Marquette University student. For a period of time in late 1968 to early 1969, Friday congregational prayers (Juma’) were held in the home of Dr. and Mrs. Yunus at 840 N. 12th Street near the former Mt. Sinai Hospital.
African American Muslims
Although it is beyond the scope of this short history of Muslims in the Milwaukee area, it should be mentioned that a substantial number of Africans that were brought to the United States as slaves were Muslims. Over the years, many of these slaves adopted (often by force) the faith of their “slave masters”.
A few African American families in the Milwaukee area adopted and practiced mainstream Muslim beliefs as early as the 1950’s. However, the first introduction of most African Americans to Islam was through a black separatist group that referred to itself as the “Nation of Islam” (NOI), even though their beliefs had nothing to do with mainstream Islam. The NOI was established in the 1930’s and its main leader, Elijah Muhammad, preached a theology that had no connection with the teachings of mainstream Islam. Following the death of Elijah Muhammad in 1975, many of Elijah Muhammad’s followers began to adopt mainstream Islam, encouraged by Elijah’s son, Warith Deen Muhammad, who was educated in mainstream Islam. Warith Deen Muhammad remained an important leader in the national Muslim community until he passed away in Chicago, Illinois in September, 2008.
The African American community established a Mosque in Milwaukee in the early 1970’s as well as a private school. Clara Muhammad School continues to operate in Milwaukee.
An American Melting Pot
In addition to Muslims from the Arab world, the Indian subcontinent and African American Muslims, Muslims in the Milwaukee area trace their origins to Turkey, Albania, Kosovo, Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria, a number of other African countries, Indonesia, Malaysia and other nations.
First Organization for Muslims in the Milwaukee Area
The first established organization for Muslims in the Milwaukee area appears to have been a “Muslim Students’ Association” chapter at the University of Wisconsin -Milwaukee formed sometime between 1970 and 1972. The MSA chapter at UWM was linked to the nationwide establishment of the Muslim Students’ Association chapters around the country. MSA National was founded on January 1, 1963 at the University of Illinois, Urbana campus. Although the Muslim community was quite small during the early 1970’s, the MSA and other members of the Muslim community of Milwaukee would try to organize Friday prayer services, Eid (holiday) prayers and educational programs. Student apartments were sometimes used for Friday congregational prayers. At other times, prayer services were held on the UWM or Marquette University campuses.
In the late 1970’s, Kenwood United Methodist Church (located across the street from the UWM Student Union) rented their basement to the Muslim students for their Friday congregational prayer services. This relationship continued until the Muslim community purchased the Islamic Center on 13th and Layton in 1982.
Islamic Association of Greater Milwaukee
The Islamic Association of Greater Milwaukee, Inc. (“IAGM”) was the first Muslim organization established in the Milwaukee area that was officially registered with the State of Wisconsin. The first official organizational meeting was held on on July 16, 1976. The IAGM began to organize functions for the Muslim community, including holiday arrangements and public lectures. On December 2, 1976, the IAGM organized the first community holiday prayers held in the Milwaukee area. The holiday prayers (Eid ul Adha) were held at Holiday Inn, 1926 W. Wisconsin Avenue. A few days later, a community potluck dinner was held at the Kenwood United Methodist Church, 2319 E. Kenwood Blvd.
In August, 1979, the IAGM changed its name to Islamic Foundation of Greater Milwaukee, Inc. (IFGM).
Muslim Students and Community Association
In 1979, a group of Muslims created an informal association (it was not registered or incorporated) in Milwaukee called the Muslim Student and Community Association (MSCA). As its name indicates, MSCA was an association that was intended to increase the interaction between the Muslim students and the Muslim community. The MSCA organized various programs for the Muslim community, including educational programs and social programs. The MSCA included a substantial number of Muslim students who were in the United States to complete baccalaureate and post baccalaureate degrees. Although many of these students would later return to their home countries, they played an important role in the development of the Muslim community in Milwaukee.
Efforts to Purchase an Islamic Center
During the early 1970’s, the number of Muslim students attending UWM increased substantially. Students came from a number of countries, including occupied Palestine, Jordan, Pakistan, India, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Libya, and other countries. The availability of the Kenwood United Methodist Church for Friday congregational prayers provided a stable, yet limited gathering place. In 1982, the IFGM found that an old, closed elementary school known as New Road School was placed for sale by the Milwaukee Public School System. The IFGM, in cooperation with the MSCA, put an offer for the school which was the sole bid. The closing for New Road School took place on July 1, 1982.
New Road School as it appeared in 1982
Growth of the Muslim Community
In the first five years after the purchase of the Islamic Center, the 16,000 square foot building served all of the community’s needs. Prayer services, educational classes for adults and children, social programs and other functions were all held at the Center. Because of the Center’s distance from the student population at UWM, Marquette and MSOE, the ISM purchased a property near the UWM Student Union in April 1984 to serve the needs of the Muslim students.
By 1990, the Islamic Center was becoming inadequate to serve all of the community’s needs. Especially problematic was the fact that the Islamic Center was no longer able to accommodate the Friday prayer gatherings. An expansion project was launched in 1993 to create a large prayer hall, a prayer balcony, a large multipurpose hall and other smaller areas. Groundbreaking took place in 1994 and the main prayer facility opened in October 1995. The Islamic Society of Milwaukee was able to complete the expansion, which included the addition of 24,000 square feet, using locally raised funds and no loans. The ISM also embarked on a major renovation project of the original school building replacing most mechanical systems. Also in 1995, the ISM hired its first full time Imam (religious leader).
As the Muslim community has grown, the ISM has continued to establish and expand its links with other organizations, including interfaith groups. From 1980 to 1990, members of the Islamic Society of Milwaukee were members of the Islamic Christian Dialogue, a Subcommittee of the Milwaukee Archdiocesan Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission. In 2003, representatives of the eleven denominations and faith groups that make up the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee voted to admit the Islamic Society of Milwaukee to full membership in the Conference. The ISM was the first addition in 30 years. The ISM is also a member of the Southeast Clergy, an organization of religious centers located the southeast Milwaukee area, Common Ground and MICAH.
Full-time Islamic School
A number of Muslims in the community had always displayed a strong desire to establish a full time Islamic School in Milwaukee. The purchase of the Islamic Center made this a more realistic possibility. A full time school was established in 1992 and began with 25 students. Due to limited resources at the time, most of the staff were volunteers. By the end of the first academic year, the number of students doubled. By the end of the following year, the number of students had increased threefold.
As the number of students in Salam School continued to expand, the need for additional space became critical. At first, the school utilized trailers located in the parking lot of the school. This was regarded as clumsy and inefficient. As a result, the Muslim community decided to expand the existing building by adding new classrooms, a gymnasium, offices and other improvements. This project, which cost over $1 million, was completed by 2001. Again, the entire project was funded by the generous donations of members of the community. In 2008, to again accommodate the continued growth of Salam School, the ISM purchased a 107,000 square foot building and converted about 43,000 square feet into classrooms. This building now houses Salam Elementary School. Salam School is a thriving school which is accredited by both, the Wisconsin Religious and Independent Schools Association and the prestigious North Central Association (NCA).
The Muslim community in the Milwaukee area has increased substantially since the ISM purchased the Islamic Center around thirty two years ago. The Friday prayer services in 1982 often numbered less than 50 people. Today, the number exceeds 1500. In 1982, the ISM did not have a full time school. Today, Salam School is a full time school (K4-12) with over 750 enrolled students and many others on a waiting list. Keep in mind that Salam School is only able to serve a fraction of the Muslim students in the community, with hundreds attending area schools, both public and parochial.
The ISM is currently working on a project to construct a house of worship in Brookfield to meet the needs of the Muslim community in the western suburbs of Milwaukee. The ISM West Task Force organized a groundbreaking event with the community on July 12th, 2013. Construction is anticipated to be completed in late October or in November 2014. There will be an open house where members of the public will be invited to attend.
© 2014 Othman Atta. This history is an updated and edited selection from an article published in 1997.